Father Maximilian Maria Kolbe - The meaning of sacrifice

Father Kolbe’s tragic death in the “death block” in the concentration camp Auschwitz on August 14th, 1941, became a symbol of sacrifice and selflessness. Maximilian Maria Kolbe decided to save his fellow inmate’s life by sacrificing his own.

Maximilian Maria Kolbe (camp number: 16670), born Rajmund Kolbe, was deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp on May 28th, 1941, from the Pawiak prison in Warsaw. Initially, he was imprisoned in Block 14 (today the numbers are different - currently it’s Block 19) and sent to construction works in the area of the camp and in the village of Babice. Due to harsh living conditions and exhausting work, he was hospitalized. After leaving the infirmary, Kolbe was sent to do lighter works - among others, he worked at a hosiery mill where he repaired clothes, and in the potato room in the kitchen.

On July 29, 1941, while counting prisoners of Block 14 in the morning, one person turned out to be missing. The escapee’s name was Zygmunt Pilawski. As always, other prisoners were to be punished for an escape, in order to discourage people from attempting to run away. Deputy commandant of Rudolf Höss, Lagerführer Karl Fritsch, along with SS-Hauptscharführer Gerhard Palitzsch, randomly selected ten prisoners who were to die from starvation as an act of revenge for Pilawski’s escape. One of the victims-to-be was Franciszek Gajowniczek, a father and husband. Father Kolbe, seeing the man’s despair, decided to act and voluntarily joined the group of convicts instead of Franciszek Gajowniczek. The group was then sent to Block 13 - today’s Block 11, known as the Death Block. Maximilian Maria Kolbe was locked in cell number 18. 

Father Kolbe was still alive after two weeks without food or water. Since the order to “clean cells” was issued by the SS on August 14, 1941, a criminal transferred from the Sachsenhausen camp named Hans Bock was selected to murder Kolbe using lethal phenol injection.

In 1971, Father Maximilian Maria Kolbe was beatified by Pope Paul VI. On October 10, 1982, Blessed Maximilian Maria Kolbe was made a saint of the Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II.

What happened to Franciszek Gajowniczek? He survived the war and died at the age of 94. He was buried in Niepokalanów, in the Franciscan monastery, where Father Kolbe founded the Niepokalanów monastery and publishing house in 1927.